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Mr. Ian Bruce: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Boswell: I fear that I shall not, as I want to conclude in two minutes' time.

The Minister said that he was relatively unconcerned about this minor matter, which he sought to minimise. I do not believe that he would claim to have come into politics to allow discrimination or unfairness on the grounds that it was peripheral or minor. One case of discrimination or unfairness would be not only a legal affront, but politically unacceptable.

I am also concerned that if the anomaly persists, it will drive a wedge between the English and Scottish university systems, to their mutual detriment. Before that happens, if the Government persist in their petty little proposals and if the House is not prepared to reject them, the Government will go down in the courts and even the petty little saving that they seek will not be available. The whole matter will be swept up in legal fees and recriminations, which they could easily have avoided.

Mr. Jim Murphy: I am pleased to participate in the debate. I believe that I am the most recent scholar of a Scottish university in the House, although I am happy to be corrected if another hon. Member has different information.

Ms Sandra Osborne (Ayr): Me.

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend suggests that she might beat my record, but until half-past 2 in the morning of 2 May last year, I was a student at Strathclyde university. Only my election to this place interrupted that study.

Ms Osborne: I stand corrected.

Mr. Murphy: I understand that I have only a few moments, but I shall allow the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) to intervene if he wants, as I said earlier.

Claims have been made by hon. Members on both sides that supporting the Lords amendment would in some way challenge elitism. I do not believe that the votes of hereditary peers in the House of Lords represent a move

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towards the end of elitism. I fail to understand why such a significant number of hereditary Tory peers got so excited over a small number of students. I guess that if we were dealing with 2,000 or 3,000 students who were not from better-off backgrounds in the greater public schools of England, the hereditary peers in the House of Lords would not be so overly exercised. I am not comfortable with that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) suggested that there was no difference between the social make-up of Scottish students at Scottish universities and those from England. That is not correct. Some 48 per cent. of students from Scotland studying in Scottish universities are from skilled backgrounds, whereas 73 per cent. of English students studying at Scottish universities are. I am not proud of the additional fact that only 1 per cent. of English students studying at Scottish universities come from unskilled working-class backgrounds. I have nothing against that 1 per cent. The figure should be higher, but we need to reform our education system lower down to achieve that. I do not believe that the Government, with their emphasis on providing opportunities for many more people, should provide a subsidy to the 1 per cent. who want to study at Scottish universities.

Mr. Hayes rose--

Mr. Murphy: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but time is not an ally.

There are income thresholds throughout the system. If English students wants to study in a Scottish university, good luck to them. I wish them well. I shared that experience with many colleagues and friends at Strathclyde university. We are saying simply that there should be an income test and an examination of an individual's ability to pay.

Between 5,000 and 6,000 English students studied at Scottish universities in 1996. When one discounts the 10 per cent. who will not study an honours degree, the one third who will not have to pay any fees whatever and the many other facts and figures, one is left with about 2,000 students paying £1,000 over four years. That works out to be less than 69p for each day's study at a Scottish university. If the individual comes from a family earning £35,000 a year or more, I think that they can afford the price of a can of Irn Bru and a Daily Record.

10.30 pm

Mr. Donald Gorrie (Edinburgh, West): I would like the Minister to clarify one or two points. Does he agree that the Lords amendments in no way suggest removing fourth-year fees from all universities in England? If so, his argument about the £28 million is totally irrelevant. Will he clarify whether the Lords amendments propose a level playing field in Scotland, so that the English, Welsh and Irish will not pay more than the Scots, and propose a level playing field in England, so that the Scots will not benefit and will pay fourth-year fees like anyone else?

Will the Minister clarify whether the fees will at all help the universities financially? As I understand it, grants to universities fall commensurately as the fees go up. So, there will be no increase in the universities' revenues,

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merely assistance to the Treasury. Will the Minister favour us with his knowledge of which Scottish university principals are in favour of the Labour proposal, as he implied? [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I appeal to the House once again to come to order. It is bad manners to conduct private conversations while an hon. Member is addressing the House. The hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) is having a conversation just now. She should not be doing that.

Mr. Gorrie: The Minister pleads in support of his argument the whole cause of devolution. Devolution and diversity represent the right and the excellence of different systems in different parts of the United Kingdom; a Scottish course may be different from an English, Welsh or Irish course. The Minister is not proposing such diversity. He is proposing that students from different parts of the United Kingdom, who are in the same lecture hall, taking the same course, be treated differently. That is not diversity; that is gross unfairness.

The Minister tried to defend his line on bogus tradition by the fact that there had been a recent increase in the number of students taking honours as opposed to ordinary degrees. Does he agree that there is a long Scottish tradition--of 250 or 300 years--of a breadth of education which has been developed in different ways in different courses?

The first year of the four-year degree is an absolutely critical part of that strong tradition. People who went straight into the second year would miss that. In addition, most Scottish courses do not allow people to enter in the second year. There is much evidence from universities that students who do so go back to the first year because they cannot make it, or give up altogether. Often, going straight into the second year is not clever.

The Minister delivered his litany about how we would not help students in Elgin or West Lothian if we pursued the amendment--but we would. It is in the interests of students from Elgin, West Lothian and other parts of the Scotland that there are viable first-year courses in Scottish universities. His measures will undermine that. We would be supporting future opportunities in Scottish universities.

The Minister is busy promoting a cause of "higher still", which will mean that more Scottish students stay on to the sixth form. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) made it clear that the argument that all Scots go from the fifth year into university is complete rubbish. The Minister's arguments are totally flawed, and he should give way gracefully.

Mr. Welsh: I congratulate the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) on his speech in which we heard the true, honest voice of what used to be the Labour party. He read out the early statistical effects of the policy--a very damning educational ragman's roll--which was created and implemented by the Government and will have cumulative effects on Scottish education.

Tonight the House again has an opportunity to resolve the anomaly whereby Scottish and European Union students at Scottish universities will have their fourth-year tuition fees paid, but non-Scottish resident UK students will not. The Scottish National party has from the start

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highlighted that flaw, among others, in the Government's higher education policy. After asking a series of parliamentary questions, I secured an Adjournment debate on the subject in January. Since then, hon. Members from all parties and a majority in another place have joined me in my opposition to the Government's policy.

The Government's proposal is nothing short of discrimination against English, Welsh and Northern Irish students for no other reason than nationality. In The Scotsman newspaper today, it was again suggested that this policy contravenes the European convention on human rights and that the Government could be challenged under European law.

In a written answer, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), said:

In other words, because European law does not prevent the Government from discriminating against their own citizens on the ground of nationality, the Government can do as they please. Following that logic, the Government could justify apartheid to themselves, if to no one else.

The policy is not only unfair to students from other parts of the United Kingdom; it will have adverse effects on Scottish institutions, Scottish education and the wider Scottish economy. English, Welsh and Northern Irish students will be deterred from coming to Scotland. Already, applications from the rest of the UK are down by 4.5 per cent. Some Scottish universities, such as Dundee and Abertay, have seen a substantial drop in applications, particularly from Northern Ireland. The final result of the Government's policy will not be known until the autumn when the more important admissions figures will be released.

Any drop in numbers of students from other parts of the United Kingdom will force Scottish institutions to downsize their diverse range of courses. There is also the danger that Scottish universities will be forced to consider abandoning the four-year honours degree and replacing it with a three-year course, so as to compete on a level playing field to attract non-Scottish resident UK students. Universities are being forced to redesign courses to suit second-year entrants for financial, not educational or academic, reasons.

The broad-based four-year degree is gaining admiration and popularity in other countries. Yet the Minister for Education and Industry has disgracefully described it as a bogus tradition. University is not and should never be a case of simply rushing people through and giving them a certificate at the end. It is a learning process and should be treated as such.

The policy will have economic repercussions, causing a reduction in the £210 million spent in Scotland each year by students from other parts of the UK.

Through written questions, I have secured pledges from the Scottish Office, the Department for Education and Employment and the Northern Ireland Office that they will monitor the effects of tuition fees and this anomaly on student numbers. I ask the Minister for an assurance that if there is any substantial drop in the number of

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English, Welsh or Northern Irish entrants to Scottish institutions this autumn, fourth-year fees for such students will be at least immediately reviewed and at best waived. I seek guarantees that the Government will monitor their policy and take action if it proves to be deleterious, as many of us fear it will be.

The Government must listen, not only to the views expressed tonight by hon. Members on both sides, but to the voice of students, lecturers and principals. The Government's policy is opposed by the Association of University Teachers, the National Union of Students, the Scottish Ancients, the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. The Government are on their own. The new Labour Government think that they know better, but if they are so confident of the wisdom of their policy and the strength of their argument, why will they not trust their own Members of Parliament to support them and allow a free vote tonight? We can be sure that they will not do that.

The Scottish Minister is left without credibility on this issue. He says that he is widening choice, but he is, in fact, restricting student choice. He says that he wants to follow the Dearing report, in his own words, "to the letter", but he is not so doing. Tonight, he praises the four-year honours degree, having previously called it a "bogus tradition". Faced with a 4.5 per cent. drop in non-Scottish UK students, he is reduced to semantics about percentages. All we have heard from the Minister is debating tricks and vitriol, which cannot disguise the weakness of his DFEE colleagues who have let him down in respect of their policy. The tuition fees policy is simply discriminatory. It is unnecessary and it could easily be remedied if there were any willingness in other Government Departments to do something about it.

The Labour Government have got it wrong. For a limited cost, the English, Welsh and Northern Irish education departments could sort out the anomaly, restore fairness and end this blatant discrimination against English, Welsh and Northern Irish students at Scottish universities. The Government should do that and, for their failure to act, they will rightly be judged.

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